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Not pulling any punches: John Ridley on 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Comic Books

Not pulling any punches: John Ridley on ‘The Other History of the DC Universe’

The final issue of this deeply moving superhero series.

Three years in the making, John Ridley’s The Other History of the DC Universe is a series that is beautifully written, deeply meaningful to our current world, and filled with characters more human than one might expect from larger-than-life superheroes. Collaborating with artists Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi, and with colors from José Villarrubia and letters by Steve Wands, it’s no surprise the first issue was nominated for an Eisner Award for best single issue.

Each issue in the series has captured the entirely of a superhero’s life well lived. In the issue dropping July 27, we delve into world of Anissa Pierce, aka Thunder. We explore how she went from a child looking up to her father — the legendary Black Lightning — to becoming a hero in her own right, and all that comes with the job. The distinction between superhero and person is elevated by Ridley and his collaborators as they humanize these characters in new and novel ways. 

Listen to the latest episode of our weekly comics podcast!

In the lead up to the book, I got the chance (as part of a group roundtable) to interview Ridley. We addressed how he captured the humanity of Anissa and other characters, how he tackled important topics about marginalized characters, and what it means to address societal bias. Ridley also discussed The Other History of the DC Universe #5, the wrap-up to the series, among some other interesting topics and various tidbits. 

These are edited excerpts from the larger conversation.

What does this project mean to you personally, in the context of your wide-ranging body of work?

John Ridley: This is probably, to this point, the thing that I’m most proud of, easily, you know, and I have a lot to be proud of. I’ve been very, very fortunate. But I started out reading comic books. I loved them. I wouldn’t be in the entertainment industry if it weren’t for comic books. I’ve always wanted to write. I wrote in fits and starts years ago. I had people ask when I was writing in television, “Why are you writing that little thing? Nobody will read it. Why are you writing Static Shock?” Again, the latitude, the support. The fact that you’re all sitting here and just you haven’t even an emotional interest in it.

John Ridley 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Every issue seems to have a turning point where you’re reading about the protagonist’s life, and then it hits you that it’s a life lived. How do you know if you’ve captured the whole character?

JR: That’s a really good question. You never quite know, until you put it in front of people. And I really think with the Other History, it really has been about it all coming together from the support initially, and everyone at DC saying you can be broad-based.

I think if anything if it feels like lives well-lived, what really made the difference was to treat these characters as humans, and examine the human dynamic. This was meant to be a very human story. And I think and I believe by the reactions, we were able to achieve what we want it to do. But an answer to your question you don’t know until you know, you open your hands and you let it fly.

So much of the Other History feels perfect as if you had the right path all of all along, but I was curious if thinking about what the reader wants is a factor in drafting each issue.

JR: I will be honest, and I really hope that as you write this, as best you can, that neither I sound, or it doesn’t come across as being self-aggrandizing. But I very sincerely gave up and put aside trying to decide what the audience wants, many years ago, and it served me well. Again, popularity is its own thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. And popularity doesn’t stop you from doing good work.

And ultimately, as I’ve said before, at this point, in my career, I’ve got an audience of two, maybe three people, the two most important are my boys. And what do I want to say to them? Or what do I want them to think about 25 years from now? And thinking about my kids, they may be different in many ways from other people. But ultimately, when I sit down I can’t think, well, gee, there’s that one person in Iowa and, you know, they wrote something on a blog that they didn’t like something that I did, let me try to fix that and correct it. That’s always that alchemy that’s gonna put you on the short end, in my opinion.

If Superman is the immigrant experience from the 1930s, and Batman is living in the crime lord experience of the 1930s. What is the Anissa Pierce experience?

JR: I hope it’s very modern, and not just modern being 2020. As a parent, you try to engineer appropriate outcomes for your kids. And as the kid, you try to gain the measure of freedom, and somewhere between that is a relationship. So to me, that experience is just meant to be the modern familial legacy experience, you know, the closest you’ll ever come to immortality is that whether it’s a biological child adopted, someone who comes into your life that you have some dominion over. So for me, what would I want? What would be that message that I would want to give to my kids?

I do think for me that the experience that I was trying to represent with Jefferson and Anissa was just that the reconciliation of family, that it’s okay, that you as a parent did the best that you could, but at some point, it becomes indicative, it becomes necessary for the child to become the parent. And to show the way.

John Ridley 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Courtesy of DC Comics.

How challenging was it for you to address the topics of racial identity, sexual orientation, and the realities of divorce in a single story?

JR: Well, it was tough in the sense that, you know, race, I have no problems going there. I don’t want to pretend that just even as a Black man, I have every answer or perspective on race, but I have a lived experience. The moment I start stepping outside of that, I know the pitfalls of trying to represent more than your lived experience. Certainly, having been able to write in different spaces, write all kinds of characters, there’s a comfort in knowing that you lead with strong characters and then there are other things, you have a strong, well-developed character, and that character may then be Black or Asian, or female or what have you. But you’ve got to start with character, but I can’t lie in a story or a series of stories that are really, really meant to ship that perspective, ship that lens a little bit, that there are moments where I certainly as a storyteller never want to hold back.

But I also don’t want to get to a point where I’m trying to lead with experiences that are not my own. More than anything, it was really about listening. Listening to people who I trust, listening to people who didn’t hold back in terms of what was on the page. And you know, not just editing in terms of it should be “a” instead of “the”, but really being honest in assessments, and then moving through those assessments. Knowing that no group is monolithic. No one person is going to represent every experience, just believing in that, the totality of it all, that at its most fundamental level, it’s a true human experience.

That I’m building off of stories written by all kinds of individuals who are bringing their perspectives and then ultimately trying to be honorific to those perspectives. I can only hope that I accomplish it. But more than anything, you know, as I said, to Tony Isabela, and I’ve had conversations with him where he was, I don’t know if apologetic is the right word. But he certainly acknowledged, hey, as a white guy of a certain age, I know that there were things that I didn’t get right. But I would say to him, look, it’s not about the things that you get wrong.

I've lived fifty-five years now and the other side ain't pulling their punches. So I'm not.

All of us, I think, have limited perspectives, and they can be either myopic, or they can be as wide as possible. And are we doing anything in our storytelling, to inspire other people to step into that space? And say, yeah, maybe my lived experience doesn’t line up with what that individual is doing. But are they trying to inspire in a way that says, hey, next up, hopefully, that person will be a little bit closer to it. So no, Tony Isabella was not a Black man in the 1970s. But me as a kid reading that was like, “oh, here’s a character who’s not just super heroic. This person is a teacher, the way my mom is a teacher, this person is focused on community, the way my parents are focused on community.” This is the first time I’m seeing a Black person lead a comic book. For me, that was the first time and that inspired.

There were many anxious moments for me. But I also say, if you’re not anxious, then you’re not cognizant of what you’re really trying to accomplish, which is being as reflective as possible. So I hope I did a really good job. But I hope more than anything else in any way, shape, or form, that there’s somebody out there of any age of any background of any faith of any gender orientation, who’s reading this and going, “Oh, hey, you know what, I could do it, literally. And if John can do it, anybody can do it.” And more importantly, anybody should feel like they should be able to try to do it, and can accomplish.

Spoilers ahead for The Other History of the DC Universe #5! 

Anissa, her history is fairly limited in comics, compared to some of the other characters that you’ve written about. So what made her the right person to cover?

JR: Yeah, there was a lot to choose from. And with Anissa, it was filling in some gaps. For example, the story where she goes to Africa, and her feelings and moods and emotions. I’ve worked with someone in Uganda who’s worked with child soldiers, and really taking these kids who are taught to kill and trying to give them a sense of life and humanity. That story to me was very powerful. And you look at that and go, that’s got to go in. But what more can I say about that? What can I say when Tatsu arrives? What can I say for Anissa, when she’s kicked off this team where she feels like, she should have been part of it.

Beyond gaps, there was just stuff that never existed, but it was trying to fill those gaps with, “Okay, well, when her parents told her that their marriage wasn’t working out, what happened for a young person at that time period in the 80s?” So it was fun in a way because in other places, we’re really trying to be honorific to the individuals who wrote these stories previously. In the space where there are gaps, it’s like, okay, I can do anything. It’s sometimes nice to have a prompt, it’s sometimes nice to have some understanding of where you’re coming in. And so Anissa was fun, it was challenging.

John Ridley 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Were there any comics that you’ve read previously, that involve the Pierce family that inspired the direction that you took with the story?

JR: There was, Black Lightning Year One, where it’s a little more modern take on Jefferson arriving to suicide slums with his entire family.

Can we talk a little bit about your writing process? How much of each story was based on knowing DC history? And how much on wanting to make a specific point about a specific event?

JR: There’s a couple of reasons it took three years. It’s just rabbit hole after rabbit hole. You sit down to find one specific thing and then you’re like, “Oh, wait, but where did this story… what preceded it? What came after it? Where do I find this issue? How do I get to it?” I mean, it was just tumbling, tumbling, tumbling.

And then, you know, also, real-life history, those moments where I knew specifically that I wanted to talk about Munich or the Atlanta child murders, Iran hostages, and things like that. What do I want to say about this? If I’m going to hit hard here, where’s some relief? Where are those moments that are a bit lighter? So it was predicated on my memories.

And that was the other thing. I mean, there were comics that I read in the ’70s and the ’80s. You go back and you’re presented with the evidence like, oh, okay, well, I forgot it actually went this way. 

John Ridley 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Do you think things are getting better for brown, queer and other characters from marginalized groups in comics?

JR: Well, I think they’re getting better, but better is not always enough. You know, for any group. It’s was great to have Jefferson Pierce show up, but then it’s one among many. And Jefferson is one Black man. There can never be enough representation, there are always going to be voices that go “God, how many of this, that or the other do I have to see?” Well, you know, as many as there are in the world.

Behind the scenes, we also have to be very cognizant, one of the things that really bugs me is like, people sometimes will say, “oh, John, of course, we’d love for you to do this or that.” You see the stories that come in, and they’re all Black guys of a certain age. If you are a queer Latinax individual or gender fluid, or what have you, you can write any story. And I think that’s the thing that we really have to remind people is that anybody can write anything. I don’t get offended if a white guy or whoever writes a Black character. The character is great. And it’s all there.

Yes, there are certain times when we get into stories that are particularly about lived experiences, and the people are closer to it. Of course, they’re gonna have more to say about it. But one of the things that also bugs me is when it’s like everybody else’s stay in your lanes, you have a Hispanic character, and we have a Hispanic writer, and they’re going to get that character, we have an Asian writer, an Asian character, and they’re going to get that character. There just needs to be a continual reassessing and understanding that people say, “Well, okay, well, can only one person write that kind of story.” No. But then we also have to be absolutely aware that everybody can write every kind of a story. So if people are just focused on one thing, and they’re saying, Oh, well, you know, this is happening. There’s also that siloing going on.

So short answer better, yes. Good enough, never gonna be good enough. I don’t, I shouldn’t say never, as an absolute, we always have to work towards as much representation and being reflective of the world that we live in, as humanly possible. People will talk about diversity. And to me, diversity is something we were trying to achieve in the 70s, we got to be reflective of the world we live in. If you say diversity, people say, Well, we have one person like this, we’ve got diversity, well, that doesn’t really reflect the world does it? So I always like to use being reflective over being diverse.

How much of this story is derived from your personal experience?

JR: Again, obviously, Anissa’s, total totality of her lived experiences does not reflect mine, but it’s so much of it as a kid. And what I would want to say to my dad, my parents are still living. So I’ve had the opportunity to have really big, deep, complete conversations with them. But also again, thinking about my kids and where they are, and how perhaps they feel about having me as their father in a million different varieties.

People will often say to me whether it’s Anissa, whether it’s Tatsu, whether it’s characters I’ve written on American Crime, or whatever they go, “which characters reflect you the most,” and I’ll say, “look, every one of them,” and I may not be a white female of a certain age, but there’s something in there. And this isn’t just me. This is any writer who’s worth anything, we are complicated people, and you got to pull those complications and put them into a character and that character then maybe whatever forward-facing but that interior space is, fortunately, unfortunately, you’d be surprised or maybe not surprised how many characters you may have seen that I’ve written, but they may not look like me, they may not outwardly appear to think like me.

John Ridley 'The Other History of the DC Universe'

Courtesy of DC Comics.

Are there any DC characters whose stories you would still like to explore in this context?

JR: Yeah. There were characters initially that I thought maybe we’d get in but we didn’t get in. I think, whether they’re characters from reflective backgrounds, different backgrounds, whether they’re just characters, I mean, I just have really enjoyed seeing these individuals as people. If the Other History became a thing, and there were just other people who wanted to add their perspectives and their voices and their points of views, just characters that they loved. You know, these were characters that not were just reflective characters.

There are tons of characters and I couldn’t name check them all in a sitting. But almost any character to me, there is something there in some of my favorite stories, some of my favorite heroes, even Superman, Batman, but the stories about the struggles are hard and ain’t easy. You know, it’s not easy for any of them. But that to me, are the really human stories. They’re really interesting stories, you know.

John Ridley

Courtesy of DC Comics.

How important was it for you to tell the stories that you have told in this series, and what mark do you hope to leave on these legacies?

JR: The last eight or so years have been very… tough. I’ve been involved in stories, whether it’s Redtails or 12 Years a Slave, certainly American Crime like, “Oh my God, how did you know or how did you know this was going on? How did you know this was going to happen? Or what’s it like with this coming out of this period?” It’s not fun. It’s not easy, as I said, I’m so proud of this work and what everybody’s done, I never want to do things that are self-important, but I’m happy for things that are important. But it’s been really, really tough over the last bunch of years. You finish one project, it reflects a little bit too much of what’s going on, art versus reality. And it just becomes a cycle. So it’s important because I feel like these stories need to be told.

As a parent, you try to engineer appropriate outcomes for your kids. And as the kid, you try to gain the measure of freedom, and somewhere between that is a relationship.

I always want people to be entertained to a degree. They’re different kinds of entertainment. If there was a piece of art that was going to change the world, somebody would have put it out into the public square by now. But I think you’ve got to remind the good people. I think you’ve got to remind the people who are progressive. I think you’ve got to remind people who are out there fighting the fight that they’re not fighting it alone. And what we are all fighting for. Anybody who has a heart, those are important fights and it gets hard and gets tough and it gets emotionally draining, but we can’t quit. 

A lot of superhero stories, it is wish-fulfillment. I wish I could do that. I wish I could save the planet. I wish I could tilt Earth’s access to keep a comet or a meteor from hitting it or what have you. And that’s all great. But sometimes you’ve got to step back and go, OK, there’s the intersection of fantasy and reality and we can go out and change the world and we can go out and inspire and we can go out and be better people.

And to me, that’s what this is about. I’m not kidding myself, like, oh, this is the fifth issue of the collective is going to hit. And the day after that, it’s all going to be hugs and kisses. But I do believe if you don’t remind people, I do believe that you don’t push back and whatever spaces we can what are we doing? So I have no problem with entertainment that purely entertains. I love a good laugh. I love a good cry as much as the next person.

I’ve been able to carve out a space where I don’t pull my punches and I’m not starting now. Nuance is great. I love some nuance. But if I’m talking about race, I’m talking about representation. I’m talking about people outside the prevailing culture, people you can feel free to go elsewhere for nuance or pulled punches or what have you, because I’ve lived fifty-five years now and the other side ain’t pulling their punches. So I’m not.

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